This article is part of the new issue of Cinema Scandinavia and is free to read online for one week. To read this article (and many other great ones!), please order a copy of our magazine or become a member. 

Directed by Egil Håskjold Larsen / Produced by Tone Grøttjord-Glenne for Sant & Usant AS Country: Norway / Language: Arabic

CPH:DOX (World Premiere) / Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival (North American Premiere)

In 2015 more than one million people have crossed into Europe, sparking a crisis in countries struggling to cope with the influx. Making the journey across the Meditteranean is not easy; 3,770 refugees have died trying to make the crossing. But for each family, this journey is better than remaining in their war-torn country, They just want to be safe. Today it would be near impossible to make the journey from Syria to Scandinavia due to most of the borders being closed. But in 2015 many risked their lives to get to safety. 69 Minutes of 86 Days follows this complex and harsh journey that one family embarks on, not concerned about which country is the ‘best’, but just wanting to reach their family members in Sweden and have a fresh start in life.

On a shore littered with lifejackets, in the middle of a crowd of people fleeing their war-torn home, a three-year-old girl stands out from the crowd. Full of a child’s energy and curiosity, carrying her little Frozen backpack on her back, she takes in the surroundings. This three-year-old girl, Lean, is the focal point of 69 Minutes of 86 Days, a documentary that follows her and her family from the shores of Greece to their family in Sweden. With minimal dialogue, we travel alongside Lean and learn about the deep courage and will the Syrian people have as they search for a new life. In its quiet beauty, it unravels the physical and emotional challenges refugees face every day. Lean is the perfect child to follow in this story: she seems to understand the gravity of the situation her and her family are in, yet she maintains her childlike wonder as she makes her journey. She is strong, never cries, and carries a positivity that many can learn from.

69 Minutes of 86 Days is stripped back in style. Lacking in much dialogue, the film makes up for it with a beautiful score and equally beautiful cinematography. it is no surprise that director Egil Håskjold Larsen has previously worked as a cinematographer, as much of the film is shot delicately with a Steadicam. His eye for framing allows us to be on Lean’s level, making our way through the crowds from her point of view. These carefully framed images create a new dynamic and attitude towards the refugee crisis in Europe, and in a wave of Syrian documentaries, 69 Minutes of 86 Days stands out for its stripped back, humanistic approach to a very real story and humanitarian crisis.

Egil Håskjold Larsen

The style of this documentary is very beautiful. How did you decide to frame it in this way?

The idea was based on trying to tell the story from the child’s perspective. We went down to the Greek islands to try and find the child. Before that, we had made a set of tools that could help us tell the story in a way that we could feel like being. Feeling the journey in a way. We wanted to use long takes because there is a stronger sense of presence when you are using longer takes. We ended up wanting to be more dynamic, so I ended up shooting everything with Steadicam.

While following this family, did you ever feel like you wanted to help them on their journey?

We decided that we would never intervene; we left them alone to do their own things. We didn’t want to make their journey more complicated, and it felt natural to sit back and observe. Also, choosing to focus on Lean meant that we had to make sure she was comfortable with a camera following her. However, we did make the journey alongside them and in a way, were always helping them. When we were not filming we’d be playing with the kids and hanging out, so it became very natural.

How did you feel making the journey yourself?

When you are making a documentary about a particular subject, you always learn a lot through the process. It was very hard for us to put ourselves in their shoes and understand the situation they were in. We were making the journey as Norwegian citizens and they were there as refugees; we could never be in the same position that they were in.

The far-right media has described the refugees who make the journey to Scandinavia as ‘economic migrants’. How do you feel about this term?

In the case of this family, it would be very wrong to tag that term. It’s really hard for me to even understand the term ‘economic migrant’ for the people we followed and for those we met on our journey. They had lost everything and left because of this. This particular family lived happily in Damascus for a very long time, which was a peaceful and wonderful city. I think if I was living in Damascus, I don’t know if I’d willingly move to freezing Uppsala in Sweden or a northern Norwegian town for fun or economic reasons. The family we followed were frustrated by their situation. All their belongings were burned in front of their eyes when they left Syria so throughout the journey to Sweden they were just desperate to figure out their future.

Was much of their journey planned?

They already had a family that had managed to make the journey to Sweden so they already had a clear mission to meet their family again. However, they never knew if they were going to make it, how long it would take or if they even had enough money. If they were to try to make the same journey today it would be impossible because of the situation in Turkey and throughout the rest of Europe. The borders are now closed, so they were quite lucky with the time they chose to make the journey.

Did the family face any difficult situations during the journey?

There were a lot of different situations where the police were intervening with them and with us. Each country has its own mentality towards how they are dealing with the situation. For example, in Serbia there were quite a lot of problems and large crowds of people. One of the most horrible scenes in the film takes place in Serbia where it’s one long, dark take with the police intervening and hitting people with batons. However, in the film, you never know which country you are in. We didn’t want to focus on who are the bad guys and who are the good guys. I don’t think Lean really cared about where she was or who was doing her any harm or being kind to her. She just wanted to reach her family in Sweden.

Are they settling into Sweden?

Lean is going to kindergarten and the family has a permanent residency permit. Her uncle and her father have jobs and are slowly learning Swedish, though Lean is the best at the language. They were able to see the film in Uppsala and were quite pleased with it. It was like they were experiencing the journey again. We had a lot of people in the audience who were emotionally touched by the film but they were, of course, less emotional because it’s not the same as experiencing the real thing. •

Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.